It’s often said that it’s always the quiet ones that you have to watch. Apparently no one ever told Freddie Mercury this, as for the best part of two decades he preened and strutted across the music industry as frontman of Queen, connecting with live audiences in a way that no one in rock music has before or since.
It’s fair to say that for all their enormous global success throughout their career, Queen were a band that divided opinion. Even here on Backseat Mafia, they are equally adored and vilified. On one hand they were a band that specialised in seemingly hollow bombast that made no effort to hide the fact that they valued style over substance, on the other they were peerless entertainers that released surprisingly consistent singles regardless of the ebb and flow of fashion and the variable quality of their own albums. While they very rarely said anything profound or personal in their songs, the fact that Queen’s songs were so universally accessible meant that they appealed even to those whose appreciation and knowledge of music was limited. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that ‘serious’ music fans have given the band such a hard time down the years.
Personally, they hold a special place in my heart, as they were the first band that I recognised the work of when I heard them on the radio. Thinking back, I must have been about six years old at the time, as it’s the singles from 1984’s The Works that I remember being played on the kitchen radio when I was a kid.
Wherever you stand in your appreciation of Queen, one thing that cannot be denied was their commercial impact, rising from humble beginnings in the early 70s, by the dawn of the 80s they were arguably competing with Led Zeppelin as the biggest band on the planet. Despite America turning their back on them during the early 80s (just as a six year old from South Yorkshire was tuning into them), they continued to be a huge success just about everywhere else across the globe, with their much celebrated appearance at Live Aid triggering a career renaissance just at the point that popular opinion held that they were dangerously close to being washed up yesterdays men. They rode this wave of popularity into the early 90s, though by this time it was obvious to even the most casual observer that King Fred was in perilously ill health. Having ceased touring in 1986, Queen’s live legacy was preserved, and the final tribute concert for Freddie was one of the most iconic musical gatherings of the early 90s.
Join me then as I wander through the highlights and lowlights of one of the most widely enjoyed, yet deeply criticised, discographies in popular song.
1970s (Synthesisers? No Thanks!)
Queen’s 1973 debut album was one that gave barely a hint at the rock colossus they would later become. Recorded on the hoof between the studio downtime of other acts that were feted for great things, it’s a curiously thin sounding release from a band that hadn’t quite figured out how to blend their hard rocking tendencies with their seemingly incompatible glam and progressive approaches. Drummer Roger Taylor sounds particularly underpowered throughout, although ‘new boy’ John Deacon’s bass doesn’t fare much better. On the whole it was a rather anonymous offering, saved only by Mercury’s exuberance and Brian May’s instantly recognisable guitar work.
Queen II was a step up from the debut, in that it sounds like it actually had a recording budget. There was still an excess of elves, ogres and fairy kings that had a habit of hassling progressive rock acts of the era. With a more concerted effort to rock harder, it’s certainly a more fully realised album than Queen’s debut, but again it struggled to sound unique beyond Mercury’s vocals and May’s guitar tone. Despite all this it found its way onto the UK album charts, and even boasted “Seven Seas of Rhye”, Queen’s first medium-sized hit single. Despite such an unpromising start, they were on their way, though that didn’t stop Sparks trying to poach Brian May away from the band, trying to convince him that Queen were obviously not going anywhere.
Except Queen did go places. Specifically they went all around the UK and across to America to support spiritual brothers Mott the Hoople. Like Queen, Mott the Hoople skilfully balanced themselves between straight up hard rock, glam-flecked pop and a progressive rock element. Ian Hunter and his cohorts must have made a favourable impression on their support act, as Queen name-dropped them in the lyrics of their next album, Sheer Heart Attack. A far more confident and less complicated rock album than their first two efforts, Sheer Heart Attack largely dispensed with sword and sorcery nonsense to tackle more more tradirtional rock themes, thereby making the album a whole lot more accessible. It featured their first big hit in “Killer Queen”, but that wasn’t the only break out moment, as opener “Brighton Rock” heralded Brian May’s arrival as a guitar hero of note, “Lap of the Gods” was the bridge between the stodgy prog of their previous two albums and their more fully realised elongated song structures on their next album, while both Taylor and Deacon made their first substantial songwriting contributions tothe group. If nothing else Sheer Heart Attack was a much tighter and fully rounded release than what Queen had offered up previously, and with their hit machine starting to gather pace, they were suddenly very much a band on the rise.
With the music media’s eyes on them, Queen realised that their next album had to take advantage of all the bells and whistles they had at their disposal. At the time A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever recorded and as much of the album’s success has to be put down to the production genius of Roy Thomas Baker, as to Queen themselves. Where earlier in their career Queen had sounded schizophrenic, on A Night at the Opera they sounded diverse, as along with their patented heavy glam prog sound, they added elements of music hall, pure pop and even a final hurrah for their sword and sorcery fixation. As bewildering a mix of styles as this sounds, Queen nailed them all on A Night at the Opera.
Of course, A Night at the Opera is best known for being the album that spawned “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a song that would be over familiar to the point of obsolescence were it not for the fact that it’s effectively the pop version of “Stairway to Heaven”, but with an opera section added for no better reason than King Fred ordained that their should be one and that it sounded fabulous. A Night at the Opera is a lot more than just the pop-prog tune that ate the world though, as “Death on Two Legs”, “You’re My Best Friend”, “Good Company” and “Love of My Life” all display Queen’s growing range with almost arrogant ease. “Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t even the album’s sole epic, as “The Prophet’s Song” matches it for musical and production complexity, as well as finally saying good riddance to the wise man that had been waffling all that fairy ogre fantasy rubbish in their collective ears since the start of their career.
A Night at the Opera is arguably Queen’s definitive album, and certainly their most fully realised, however it’s not without a weak spot. “I’m in Love With My Car” was the album’s Roger Taylor sung number which the band were seemingly contractually obliged to add to every album they recorded. Taylor’s more traditional rawk vocals contrast sharply to the precision of Freddie Mercury’s, so the songs he sings on each album frequently sound like as if a less talented band in the studio next door had snuck in and recorded a far inferior song on the album’s master tape with no one noticing. Taylor sung songs frequently stand out like a sore thumb on the majority of Queen albums, but nowhere more so than on A Night at the Opera.
A Night at the Opera was Queen’s springboard into the rock mega-leagues, so of course their record label wanted to emulate the same success. A Day at the Races, with it’s matching heraldic album cover and Marx Brothers title was an obvious attempt to duplicate the magic of it’s predecessor, but there were a few vital elements missing. The most obvious element was the fact that, for reasons no one seems to understand, Queen decided they didn’t need Roy Thomas Baker’s production experience and that they could do it all themselves. The fact that the new batch of songs weren’t quite up to par didn’t help much either. True, there were moments of obvious brilliance, such as the hard rocking “Tie Your Mother Down” and the proto-power ballad “Somebody to Love”, but too much of the rest of the album smacks of a lack of quality control. Perhaps Thomas Baker had reigned them in a little in the past, but whatever the case, A Day at the Races does its best to capture the feeling of A Night at the Opera, but it ultimately struggles due to there being too little top draw material spread too thinly.
By this point in the late 70s Punk had arrived to scorch the music industry clean of the type of pompous excess that Queen had so far specialised in. Queen’s reaction to that was News of the World, a far leaner and meaner album than their previous pair of pomp rock offerings, boasting not one, but two anthemic tunes which were seemingly tailor made to be sung by a stadium full of rock fans. Both “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” practically drip with self-satisfied arrogance, but you cannot deny that they do what they do better than any other songs you could mention. Trouble was, beyond break-neck rocker “Sheer Heart Attack” and Deacon’s stately “Spread Your Wings”, News of the World was another album that had way too much filler than strictly necessary, a problem compounded by the fact that the album’s four best songs are over within the first five tracks.
Despite two less than gripping albums, Queen still enjoyed regular forays into the singles chart through the late 70s and by now they were one of the biggest touring acts of the day. 1978’s Jazz was a muddled attempt to try and distill everything Queen did well into one album. The result was a desperate mess of an album that not even the returning Roy Thomas Baker could salvage. Seemingly Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor threw every idea and conceit they had at the wall in a desperate attempt to figure out what would stick. It still had moments of inspiration, such as the fun duo of “Bicycle Race” and “Fat Bottomed Girls”, but ultimately they were just a pair of tracks that weren’t meant to be taken seriously, but elsewhere there was distinct lack of quality control again, with both “Let Me Entertain You” and “Dead on Time” being badly misjudged, however Taylors frankly rancid “Fun IT” makes both of those tunes look like works of genius.
For all that Queen misjudged Jazz, it is home to arguably their most enduring song. In recent years “Don’t Stop Me Now” has seemingly overtaken “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the most beloved Queen song. With it’s full throttle arrangement, well judged thrilling changes of pace and unforgettable chorus, these days it’s the Queen song that even those that openly dislike the band confess is pretty good. Just when you think Queen have dragged victory from the jaws of defeat and concluded Jazz with a stone cold classic, they get it all wrong and finish the album with the horrific “More of That Jazz”, which is little more than a megamix of the album condensed in a malfunctioning car crusher. It probably goes without saying that Roy Thomas Baker never produced another Queen album.
1980s (Synthesisers? We love ’em!)
Despite the badly misjudged Jazz, somehow Queen were among the biggest rock acts on the planet as the 80s began, a fact underlined by the hit-soaked The Game, where they once again attempted to demonstrate how eclectic they were, only this time with relatively impressive results. The funk rock of “Another One Bites the Dust” was something new for them, and a huge hit, as was the rockabilly pastiche of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, while “Play the Game” and “Save Me” were much more traditional Queen singles. Where recently the tracks that had not been singles tended to be far weaker tracks, on The Game they were far stronger, though Mercury’s “Don’t Try Suicide” wasn’t great and as ever, the Roger Taylor sung number, “Rock It (Prime Jive)” was the absolute nadir of the album. Still, The Game had demonstrated that Queen could still pull together a halfway satisfying album when they put their mind to it, so it boded well for the future.
The disco rock of “Another One Bites the Dust” had done big business in America, dragging The Game to the top of the album charts there, so following a knowingly silly diversion soundtracking Flash Gordon, Deacon and Mercury decided that Queen should dial down the hard rocking favoured by Taylor and May, and immerse themselves in a funky disco rock hybrid. The resulting Hot Space was little more than a disaster for Queen, with only their much loved collaboration with David Bowie “Under Pressure” being the only track of note, and that wasn’t even recorded during the same sessions. In retrospect it was a brave experiment for the band, but given that May and Taylor’s hearts were obviously not in the project, it was one that was always going to be doomed to failure, resulting in the period from 1982-84 being regarded as ‘lost years’ among their long term fans, though if you want to experience a Queen album that doesn’t sound much like Queen, then Hot Space is the one to go for.
Despite their enduring popularity as a live draw, Hot Space had seen Queen lose both ground and face, so they made a decision to return to their roots as a rock band for 1984’s The Works, ensuring that there was enough pop sheen to give them a foothold back in both the affections of their fans and the pop charts. For many this would be a brush with pop too far and many of the detractors point to the material from this mid 80s patch as the reason they detest Queen. While the Roger Taylor written “Radio Ga Ga” was an unashamedly blatant commercial hit, it was when the band dressed in drag on the video for “I Want to Break Free” that MTV panicked and Queen lost their American audience. Anthemic and unmistakably Queen, it’s John Deacon’s pop masterpiece.
The Works was a successful return to the core Queen sound twinned with contemporary production, with “Tear it Up” a rather standard May written rocker easily eclipsed by his far superior “Hammer to Fall” and Mercury’s “It’s a Hard Life” being one of the band’s oddly under-appreciated pop songs, contrasting with the misfire that was “Man on the Prowl”. The album closes with “Is This the World We Created…?”, which indicated that maybe, just maybe, Queen had a social conscious. As close as a return to form as The Works was, it also offered conclusive proof that, despite all four band members capable of penning top ten singles, Queen albums would never again reach the pleasingly cohesive heights of their 70s creative peak.
If The Works had been uneven, then It’s a Kind of Magic was decidedly lumpy. An album that seemingly didn’t know if it was going to stand on its own terms, or be a bunch of tunes used to soundtrack mid 80s fantasy romp Highlander, with the one they did for Iron Eagle thrown in for good measure, and a bunch of other odds and sods. Again, it had it’s moments, such as the effortlessly catchy “One Vision”, the title track’s crowd pleasing pop rock, and “Who Wants to Live Forever” ably demonstrated that they could still offer up an effective power ballad when required to do so. Trouble was, the whole album sounds carelessly thrown together in an attempt to capitalise on the post-Live Aid commercial boost they had enjoyed. The promotional tour would be their last and easily one of their best, but the album itself was sadly lacking.
Although no one publicly stated that the Magic Tour would be their last, Queen fans must have sensed something was odd when they didn’t tour to promote 1989’s the Miracle, a varied collection of mature pop rock numbers, that was promoted by an eclectic quartet of singles. “The Miracle” was a classy pop rocker, “Breakthru” was a more guitar heavy and harder rocking, while “Invisible Man” bordered on electro-rock. The only dud among the four singles was “Scandal”, but once again, the balance of the album is spoiled by putting all the best numbers in the first half of the album, causing a significant drop off in interest in the second half. Where The Miracle was good, it was Queen demonstrating they were still a force to be reckoned with. The trouble was, in those bits where it wasn’t so good, it failed to hit the spot.
Early 90s (King Fred’s last stand)
As the 90s opened, Queen were uncharacteristically quiet. An appearance at the Brit Awards confirmed that not all was well with King Fred, with the other three members of the band closing ranks to protect him. It was a pleasant surprise then when their first single to promote their new album of the same name, Innuendo, was a commendable stab at a “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the 90s. A recall of their pomp rock peak, the single proved that Freddie Mercury was in fine voice despite his now obvious health issues. The album was more of the same too. Easily their most eclectic since the 70s, it saw Queen make a determined stand to record one last great album with their iconic frontman. It almost worked too, with straight up hard rockers, playful conceits like a song dedicated to King Fred’s favourite cat and unashamedly playful pop. Perhaps most notable are a pair of songs which showed that, after years of commercial tunes which ultimately told you little about the personalities of the band, allowed you to see tantalising glimpses of the men behind the stage craft. “These are the Days of our Lives”, was an uncharacteristically subtle number where finally King Fred allows his mask to slip as he stands, seemingly emotionally naked, thanking his friends and fans for putting up with his shenanigans down the years. It’s completely unique entry in the Queen songbook, and one of the few that is genuinely emotionally effecting (the irony is of course that it was not Mercury that penned the lyrics, but Taylor). More typical was “The Show Must Go On”, which in retrospect was Mercury’s final roar of defiance against his doubters, and the final Queen single released in his lifetime.
On 24 November 1991 Farrokh Bulsara passed away from bronchial pneumonia resulting from the AIDS virus and rock music lost its greatest showman.
Queen’s reputation for live performance in many ways exceeded their not inconsiderable reputation for recording studio brilliance. When Queen graduated to playing arenas and stadiums, the level of their performance leapt up to exceed the requirements of their audience and venues. By the early 80s, regardless of the now hit and miss quality of their albums, they were the consummate live act, and King Fred had an utterly peerless stage presence and grasp of audience dynamics. Although there have been many pretenders to the crown since, absolutely no one has ever been able to connect with an audience in the same way as King Fred, and if they try, they inevitably end up looking more than a little silly (and that especially goes for Bono).
Queen only released two live albums during Freddie Mercury’s lifetime. Live Killers was a by the book live double, the type of which every rock band worth their salt were releasing in the 70s. It’s a fair set of material from their synthesiser free period, and for many it is the obvious choice if they are only going to have one live Queen album in their collection. The other was Live Magic, a single disc cobbled together from performances from their 1986 tour which, despite the band being at a live performance peak, was ultimately a disappointing album which reeked of cash-in.
Since Freddie Mercury’s passing, there has been a steady flow of archive live material being released. The first of these was Live at Wembley ’86, a fine release from 1992 capturing their penultimate pair of gigs. Effectively a live greatest hits set, it captures the band at their most imperious, playing songs from every phase of their career up to that point , with Mercury at his most impish, May ramping up the guitar histrionics and the sound of Roger Taylor’s drums live and unleashed, after a period of them being smothered by 80s production methods, or replaced altogether by drum machines. Perhaps an even wiser investment if you want to enjoy Queen at their live performance peak, would be the Live at Wembley ’86 DVD. Although not recorded in HD quality, the visuals better capture the experience of Queen on stage and is among the finest documents of a live stadium rock show.
Since the turn of the millennium, there has been an ongoing series of live CDs and DVDs from various stages in Queen’s career, all of which are worthy of at least a watch if you’re a fan. They’re generally of consistent quality, and there’s potential for them to release more in the future, particularly when you consider that landmark performances like their free concert in Hyde Park from 1975 has yet to see official release. For all this embarrassment of riches and risk of flooding the market, the Live at Wembley ’86 DVD remains the definitive document of Queen live on stage, and the one that cements the memory of a full-bananas Queen performance into the consciousness.
If there is one act for whom a compilation distils their very essence of better than any album, it is Queen. As inconsistent as their albums could be, by the time they had hit their creative stride in 1974, they almost always had at least three top-draw hit singles on each album. Their first greatest hits album is currently the best selling album in the UK of all time, selling in numbers that it seems unlikely that any other release will ever match. For all it’s sales, it’s not without it’s howling omissions, as two of Queen’s best singles, “Tie Your Mother Down” and “Spread Your Wings” are missing. True, they weren’t big sellers, but they were two of the band’s finest tunes from the era.
If anything, Greatest Hits II, released mere weeks before Mercury’s passing, is even more vital than its predecessor, as it covers the period in which they were released unassailable pop-rock singles, yet their albums were generally uneven. For many, these two greatest hits set is all the Queen they’ll ever need, and that’s understandable, as they are two of the finest examples of greatest hits compilations ever released. Beyond these two offerings though, things become much more problematic.
1997’s Queen Rocks is a solid attempt to spotlight Queen’s hard rocking side, complete with a newly recorded track in tribute to Fred. Despite the best intentions, it’s not a vital listening experience, and is only notable for it being the last time that John Deacon would appear on new material released under the Queen name.
Greatest Hits III was a disaster and a foreboding sign of how far things would go awry with Queen’s legacy. Little more than a barrel scraping exercise, it pulled together a number of horrific collaborations with vocalists that were not fit to polish Mercury’s microphone stand / remixes / post-Mercury solo offerings and general flotsam and jetsam.
Absolute Greatest attempts to do the impossible and compress Queen’s career into one disc. It omits too many great singles, once again underlining the fact that the first two Greatest Hits sets were as good as it was going to get for those who now prefer to purchase their music with the weekly shop.
During the rerelease campign of the band’s back catalogue in 2011, there were released a trio of Deep Cut compilations. These were aimed squarely at those that had only ever heard the first two Greatest Hits albums, but they offer nothing new to the completist.
Queen Forever is an even more baffling release, as it appears to be a bunch of Queen tunes selected by a chicken pecking at a list of their songs at random. True, if you’ve only heard their Greatest Hits collections, there was a whole bunch of tunes that would be unfamiliar, but once again, it was just another excuse to squeeze more money out of Queen completist by including another previously unreleased track that wasn’t worth the money.
Such has been Queen’s influence over rock and pop music, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the scope of their legacy. Simply put, every rock band that has subsequently had a hit on the radio, or made a music video, every act that has played an arena or stadium, every pop act who indulge in a bombastic live presentation owe some sort of debt to Queen. When they reached the point where they were capable of filling stadiums, no one else playing the same sized venues could touch them.
Perhaps one of the least discussed elements of Queen’s legacy was the fact that, much like The Beatles, each individual was absolutely vital to the band’s appeal. In Brian May, they had a songwriter and guitar player with an instantly recognisable technique and guitar tone from his Red Special. In Roger Taylor they had a capable drummer, who wrote some of their biggest hits of the 80s and provided the perfect backing vocals to the incomparable Mercury. In John Deacon, they had a member of the band who managed to be quiet and enigmatic despite the blinding glare of the spotlight, who wrote some of Queen’s most unique hit singles and seemed to be the anchor no matter how much the other thee band members were pulling in opposite directions. Lastly there was Freddie Mercury, a vocalist with a mindblowing range, who transcended the role of frontman to become easily the most magnetic entertainer of his generation, who simply could not be replaced.
Perhaps there is no better demonstration of how irreplaceable King Fred was, than his own tribute concert, when a host of his contemporaries and acts that Queen had influenced fronted his band mates to wave goodbye to Freddie. Be they David Bowie, Axl Rose, Elton John, George Michael, Robert Plant, or anyone else who stepped up to the mike that day, no one could fill those absolutely unique shoes. It’s not as though there haven’t been multiple attempts since either, from mis-matched rock legends (Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers), to talent vacuums (Robbie Williams), no one has even come vaguely within touching distance of replacing Mercury on stage or in the fan’s hearts.
The tribute gig also highlighted the fact that, no matter how many attempts hav been made down the years, no one has ever recorded a cover of a Queen song that outdid the original. Despite the fact that only Queen were equipped to do Queen songs justice, many have tried to cover their songs, but the majority have failed miserably. Having said that, there have been a number of brave attempts that are notable for various reasons, be it The Muppets’ much celebrated version of Bohemian Rhapsody, or Cud’s gloriously disrespectful version which saw release as part of their Elvis Belt / Elvis Handbag compilation. My personal favourite though was one I experienced during a live performance by Corn Mo a few years ago. To this day I maintain that you haven’t lived until you’ve sung along to “We Are the Champions” played by a short tubby Texan on accordian.
In the mid 90s, Made in Heaven was released. An album compiled of tunes where Mercury had recorded vocals in the last months of his life for the rest of the band to finish recording after his passing, it was a generous enough gesture, but for obvious reasons, it was never going to be a classic, despite Taylor, Deacon and May’s best efforts. It only served to underline how much Mercury was still missed.
Since the start millennium, May and Taylor have operated under the Queen name. The juke box musical based on Queen’s songs has been an enormous financial success, as have a number of money spinning tours with various vocalists, however these ventures have divided opinions among the band’s fans. On one side, there are those thankful that they are keeping the Queen name alive, however on the other, on which I must include myself, it is seen as a relentless eroding of a great band’s legacy. Then again, who else would have the right to cash in on that legacy if not Roger Taylor and Brian May?
It should be noted that John Deacon has not been a part of any Queen related projects in recent years. Retiring from the music industry in 1997, he apparently does not object Taylor and May’s projects, but has no wish to associated with them. He hasn’t been above criticising them, particularly their association with Robbie Williams who did such a horrendous job fronting Queen for a re-recording of “We Are the Champions” that Deacon made a rare public statement declaring his horror. Ultimately though, Deacon has pretty much disappeared from the public view to quietly enjoy his royalties and family life, thus preserving his enigmatic qualities in a way his bandmates never could. After all, it’s always the quiet ones you have to watch isn’t it?